We had planned to work on empathy this week, but then the phrase "shock and awe" caught our attention. Awe — now there's a spiritual word. What is it doing in a headline at CommonDreams.org? The term surfaced again during Now with Bill Moyers when he played a report from CBS Evening News Pentagon correspondent David Martin.

Briefly, "shock and awe" refers to a military strategy that could be used in the threatened U.S. war on Iraq. According to one Pentagon plan, on the first days of the war, the U.S. would put on a massive display of firepower, showering Baghdad with 300 - 600 cruise missiles (more than used during the entire first Gulf War). This would so "shock and awe" the Iraqis that they would immediately lose the will to fight and surrender. Although the term may be new, this is what the U.S. did by dropping atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II.

You can read an analysis of "shock and awe" as a military strategy in an article by Ira Chernus, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Our concern here is what "shock and awe" says about living in wartime. Wartime rhetoric is usually characterized by a pollution of the language. In World War II, "resettlement" was really imprisonment; "the Final Solution" referred to a Holocaust of mass executions. In recent conflicts, civilian casualties are called "collateral damage"; destruction of water supplies and roads become "targeted attacks on the military infrastructure"; bombs dropped from high altitudes are "surgical strikes." Now the planned destruction of a city populated by millions of men, women, and children sounds like a video game titled "Shock and Awe."

Looking at the meanings behind texts — including those popping up in the newspapers — is part of the search for meaning and purpose in wartime. So this week, let's examine "awe" and the other word often associated with it, "reverence." (Reverence is one of the 37 spiritual practices in the Alphabet of Spiritual Literacy.)

There are slight differences in the definitions of these words. From the American Heritage Dictionary:

Awe: a mixed emotion of reverence, respect, dread, and wonder inspired by authority, genius, great beauty, sublimity, or might.

Reverence: A feeling of profound awe and respect and often love; veneration.

In sum, awe can mean dread brought on from a display of might. Reverence is about respect and love. Imagine what would happen if any country decided to shock the world with its reverence.

Book Excerpts

Our readings spell out the profound implications of reverence.

  • Paul Woodruff on Reverence as an Ancient Virtue
    Woodruff has discovered by studying the ancient Greeks and Chinese that reverence is a foundation stone of a healthy society, especially when it defines the relationship between leaders and the people. Why? Because it grows from a deep understanding of human limitations, and it keeps human beings from trying to act like gods.
  • Abraham Joshua Heschel on Reverence as a Salute of the Soul
    Heschel, the great Jewish theologian, sees reverence as an essential element of the pious life. "In every event there is something sacred at stake," he notes. We must be "ever alert to see behind the appearance of things a trace of the divine."

Spiritual Practices

Thomas Berry, an eco-philosopher, sets our intention for practice this week: "Every being has its own interior; its self, its mystery, its numinous aspect. To deprive any being of this sacred quality is to disrupt the larger order of the universe. Reverence will be total or it will not be at all." Our recommended practices for this week involve reflection and action to reinforce total reverence.

First, reflect upon your own state of reverence. What awes you? Reverence is a way of radical respect. What does it mean for you to respect all peoples? How do you express your reverence for the whole creation?

Second, use a gesture to express your reverence. Lama Surya Das describes a practice of the great Buddhist saint Shantideva.

If you want more articles, spiritual practices, and resources, check out the "Reverence" practice page here.